The Art of Critical Writing

Image Credit: Yasmin Khan

Earlier this year, in April to be exact, we launched the Art of Critical Writing, a short course enabling budding arts critics to fine-tune their analytical skills over an afternoon of practical tasks, feedback and discussion.  The course proved to be a success among the participants at its premiere, at the Southbank Centre’s Alchemy Festival, and since then has taken on Leicester and Birmingham with further dates scheduled for November 2012.  In line with these recent developments, we thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on the sessions, and share the concepts and issues that have arisen from them, with you.  

The Art of Critical Writing (AOCW) was curated by Kadam Director and Pulse Editor Sanjeevini Dutta, who wanted to open up the performance experience by encouraging arts enthusiasts to find their authorial voice.  AOCW forms part of a trio of Kadam short courses, the others being Listening and Seeing, and was named ‘The Art of’ as an homage to Alain de Bottain’s Art of Travel.  
 
Dutta invited cultural commentators to share their experiences of writing – spoken word, written word, or the performative kind – with our aspiring writers.  Speakers have included Sanjoy Roy, dance critic for The Guardian, Dancing Times and Pulse; Dr Melissa Blanco Borelli, Lecturer in Dance Studies at the University of Surrey; Dr Anita Ratnam, Founder and Managing Editor of Narthaki; Jameela Siddiqi, a freelance music critic; and, more recently, Donald Hutera, a freelance writer for The Times and Londondance.com among others.   
 
Sanjoy presented his tried and tested model, a performance spider diagram if you will, which covered all angles of the performance experience: the performer, the choreographer, the observer and, of course, the critic.  The model gave participants an enhanced awareness of the performance setting which, in turn, will inform their critical thinking, and of course, writing.  When putting these thoughts onto paper, Sanjoy advised the participants to show, rather say, what they mean through their deployment of literary devices because the description and style, in itself, will reveal the experience for the reader.  Following on from that, Melissa declared that a love of words is just as important as an understanding of how to implement them.  She shared extracts from some of her favourite writers to exemplify literary devices and encouraged participants to read a variety of writing styles in order to learn from and emulate them in their own work.  
 
Unfortunately, dance is an undervalued art form, partly because it has no material value: it cannot be hung on the wall of an art gallery like a painting, or picked up, read and have its pages turned like those of a book.  Dance is ephemeral, all for the moment, gone in a flash but, to a certain extent, dance transcends time and space because of the feelings and images it evokes.  To that end, Melissa suggested that the form is constantly present and therefore requires a present re-presentation.  In other words, the critical writing should be in the present tense and the author should have an active voice to mirror the subject it’s conveying.  
 
Of course, we make up our own minds about how much (or how little) we enjoy a dance performance, and your opinion is just as worthy as the next person’s, but how do we make our opinions count?  How do we share our personal thoughts with others who might not share the same view or haven’t seen the work we’re discussing?  Melissa addressed this very issue by suggesting that critical writing is about making meaning from the performance so that it is relevant to today or, more specifically, relevant to you.  Her presentation centred around six key principles/questions which she suggested might frame the participants’ critique.  These principles include: where are we – setting the scene for the reader; what is happening – movement description and choreographic analysis; what frames of analysis are to be deployed – feminist, cultural, political; and how do I want to leave my reader?  Just as the dance left you, the observer, with an impression, how do you want to pass on your impressions of the piece to your reader? 
 
Following the tutors’ presentations, participants were asked to write a short review on a dance performance, live or recorded, so that they could put their skills into practice.  It was a quick turnover between observing, writing and submitting the review but the participants rose to the occasion and Sanjoy was on hand to give individual feedback which could be implemented in their future written work.  He emphasised the importance of a journalist’s toolkit – the what, where, who, when – even though these points seem the most obvious, particularly when they feature in the title of the review.  He continued that description should be the first port of call; even when it becomes difficult to convey an idea, description will recreate the mood of the performance and everything else, like the critical analysis and value judgement, will come.  Like a painter, sketching before he turns to oils and pastels, use description and then colour it with finer details from your memory of the performance.  
 
Critical writing is, indeed, an art not a science, and for that reason there is a limit to how much can be ‘taught’.  Having said that, there is a constant need to address and re-address the issues that arise from performance conventions, and by discussing and practising different approaches, arts criticism will continue to develop and reflect the work of its time which will, in turn, confirm its role as an art form in itself.  
 
Lucinda Al-Zoghbi